Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“To be truly simple, you have to go really deep”

with 2 comments

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

—Apple designer Jonathan Ive, quoted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2011 at 9:54 am

2 Responses

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  1. Dear Alec

    I always enjoy the quotes you post, but I have to take issue with quoting anyone from Apple. I apologise for getting on a hobby-horse. But I am still going to do it. No need to read any further.

    Apple’s idea of simplicity is to limit the user’s options — this of course allows them to make interfaces simpler. But it also makes the devices prey to the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and they make it much harder for the user who wants something a little different to get what they want. Take their laptops with the one button mouse. This is broken by design. I had a PowerBook, supplied by my work. I will not discuss its appalling unreliability, the battery that burned me or the magna-lock charger that had to be replaced three times. It had 2 USB ports, but it really only had one because half the applications I used needed two mouse buttons (the other half needed three buttons — anything running through X-windows). That left one USB port. In today’s world that too is broken by design. It is easy to design things to be simpler when you reduce the user’s options.

    The idea that Apple are masters of design is one of the great modern myths of industry, one of the great PR triumphs. The iPod may have been a good design, but it is an exception rather than the rule. No USB ports on the iPad! That was like Apple spitting on their customers.

    ‘get rid of the parts that are not essential’. To whom? I need a three button mouse to do my work. They could have put three buttons on the laptop and have the button functions set in software so that they defaulted to all being left click, but with an _option_ to change it. But no. Apple tells me how to use my computer, and limits what I can use it for. It is like a car manufacturer making the car ‘simpler’ by not allowing me to adjust the mirrors and the seat. Oh yes, and you can’t open the windows _and_ have the radio on at the same time. Yes it is simpler (and no doubt cheaper to manufacture). Is it more useful? Does it help me to get things done? No. I think for all their rhetoric about ‘digging deeper’ they need to go down another level — why do they want simplicity? Is it really a good thing of itself when it eats into usability? A rock is pretty simple. But it is correspondingly limited in what it can be used for.

    Simplicity is not a goal of itself, it must contribute to a far more important goal — fitness for purpose. Being pretty does not hep a computer be fit for purpose. One should not confuse brushed aluminium for genuine substance. Being simple helps if it makes use more intuitive, but not if it then precludes important uses of the machine. Plainly users like me should simply buy something else, which is a shame because Apple’s operating system is quite excellent, Pity they don’t give users the flexibility to easily install it on non-Mac hardware. But then, that is just another example of their draconian corporate culture.

    Plainly design is always going to result in compromise. There are always more options that could be installed, making a machine more and more and more complex. It is fair to say that Apple designers have chosen a certain set of capabilities as what their customers need, and these mesh well with many customers and not with others. Hence my criticism is simply like saying ‘Mac don’t do what _I_ want them to’. I admit it. But why congratulate them for setting the bar low?


    November 20, 2011 at 8:42 am

  2. Hmmm…I think on this issue, we’re going to have to agree to disagree, because I’m an unapologetic Apple fan. (There’s perhaps half an hour in my entire day when I’m not physically touching or within two feet of an Apple product.) That said, you make some good points: when I got the iPad and my most recent MacBook, I was pretty frustrated by certain features, and it took me a long time to customize them to the point where I could use them as intuitively as I’d like. Even now, there are a few mystifying design choices that I just can’t get behind, like the removal of the “Save As” feature in the latest version of Mac OS X. Since I basically just use my computer to write, play media, and go online, it isn’t a big deal, but I can see how this would be a dealbreaker for other users.

    All the same, I think Apple has generally been a design force for good, and that they’ve done remarkable things. And for me, they’ve almost always been a pleasure to use, although that’s partially due to the fact that my user expectations have been shaped by Apple since my teen years. (I’ve never used anything else at home.) The real challenge for Apple lies in balancing the two contradictory aspects of their mission, which is that they’re making products both for a selective elite and for everyone in the world. There’s a great interview with Walter Murch, recently posted here, where he talks about how Final Cut Pro X, while striving to become accessible to a much wider pool of users, has become less useful to the professional editors who use it for a living. Which is is a real concern. And as far as design goes, that’s a much bigger, and more interesting, challenge.


    November 20, 2011 at 10:52 am

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